On January 11th, US occupation forces took five Iranian officials hostage from a diplomatic office in Arbil, Northern Iraq, prompting protests from the Kurdish regional authorities who had invited the Iranians. On February 4th, an Iraqi army unit under direct American command kidnapped an Iranian diplomat in Baghdad. These are incidents we can be sure of.
On February 14th, the anniversary of the bomb which killed Rafiq Hariri and many passersby in Beirut, eleven Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen died when their bus was bombed by Jundallah, a Sunni fundamentalist and Baluchi separatist group active in southeastern Iran. Iranian authorities accused the US of involvement in the attack, a claim which is backed up by Seymour Hersh and several other analysts who have described American promotion of ethnic and sectarian conflict in Iran, and specifically American cooperation with al-Qa'ida linked anti-Shia groups throughout the region.
Murkier still are rumours that the US administration's Iran Syria Policy and Operations Group is running a campaign to kidnap Revolutionary Guard commanders. Veteran Guardsman Alireza Askari either defected or was kidnapped during a visit to Istanbul in early February, and the fates of several other officers are unknown.
One of Iran's top nuclear scientists, Ardeshir Hussainpur, died on January 18th. His death wasn't announced until a week later, and the cause given then was 'gas poisoning.' The US security company Stratfor has said that the Israeli Mossad assassinated Hussainpur.
Meanwhile, there are now two US aircraft carrier batle groups in the Gulf, and Britain's naval presence has recently been boosted.
This is the context in which 15 British sailors have been arrested by Iranian forces while patrolling the Shatt al-'arab waterway between Iraq and Iran. Immediately much of the Western media fits the event into the narrative of the American embassy hostage crisis. We are told, without a hint of irony, that the British navy is on the Shatt al-'arab to ensure that 'intruders' will be chased off. The British mission, writes Richard Norton-Taylor in the Guardian, is to 'protect Iraq's oil supply' against 'pirates, smugglers and terrorists.' If the Anglo-American invasion and destruction of Iraq is seen against the background of the new oil law hurried through Iraq's absentee parliament, the words 'pirates, smugglers and terrorists' seem apt descriptors of US and British forces. In any case, Western packaging of the story has made very little reference to the recent history of US kidnapping operations against Iranian targets, or to the fact that the Shatt al-'arab was one front in the disastrous Iran-Iraq war during which Saddam Hussain used Western arms and money to cover Iranian cities in poison gas.
Nobody has wondered what the British reaction would be if Iranian forces were found half a mile outside of British territorial waters (this is the British claim; the Iranians say the sailors had crossed the border). The press, 'liberal' and conservative, have remained largely loyal in framing the victim as the aggressor, the aggressor as the victim, once again. Watch this story carefully. It has the potential to escalate into a deliberately-plotted, nation-smashing tragedy. Once again.